CCUL's Ron Fong is `PAC Man,' Gets Credit Unions to Invest in Future
SACRAMENTO, Calif. - When credit union officials see Ron Fong coming, they hold on a little tighter to their checkbooks, make sure their wallets are securely tucked away, and get a firm grasp on their pocketbooks. Fong knows the reaction is usually all in good fun. But his job raising...
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. – When credit union officials see Ron Fong coming, they hold on a little tighter to their checkbooks, make sure their wallets are securely tucked away, and get a firm grasp on their pocketbooks. Fong knows the reaction is usually all in good fun. But his job raising funds for the political action committees (PACs) of the California/Nevada Credit Union Leagues is deadly serious. “We look at it as an investment in our future,” said Fong, who became director of political finance in 2001. “We’re not asking people to give big amounts. We’re just asking them to do their fair share for the survival of credit unions.” Most credit unions, credit union officials and their supporters as well as suppliers and vendors have gotten that message and have opened their checkbooks to contribute. In the last eight years, PAC funding has increased more than tenfold. During the 1995-1996 fund-raising cycle – each campaign runs for two years – the California PAC raised $150,000. In the current 2003-2004 cycle, the league is on target to raise $2 million. With political advocacy a top priority and the need for PAC dollars dramatically increasing, the league’s state legislative affairs office in Sacramento was reorganized in 2001, with Fong being moved from assistant legislative director to political finance director. The move left Bob Arnould, vice president of state governmental affairs and the league’s chief state lobbyist, heading the office. Chris Kerecman, vice president of federal governmental affairs, continued as the league’s chief federal lobbyist. Until the reorganization, Fong, Arnould and Kerecman were all involved in PAC fund-raising in addition to their legislative lobbying duties. “When you raise the kind of money we’ve been raising, it became very apparent. that we should have one point person doing all that instead of having three people handling legislation part time and fund raising part time like we had been doing it,” said Fong, who has been with the league since 1996. “It’s just going to be much better managed that way. It’s important enough to our organization that we dedicated the resources to do that.” At the league’s annual meeting and convention in San Diego, PAC contributors will be treated Tuesday evening (Nov. 18) to a special reception and awards ceremony. Fong calls events like the reception and the pre-convention golf tournament at famed Torrey Pines Golf Course – with tourney proceeds going for the first time to the PACs run by the league and San Diego area credit unions – “fun raising” events. Those events, he said, are the fun and easy parts of the job. “The part you don’t see and the biggest part, where I spend the majority of my time, is the constant educational process explaining why people should give,” he said. “It takes a big effort. “You’ll see me huddled in the corners at annual meetings talking to certain groups, certain credit unions, certain board members, constantly educating them about why we need to raise so much money,” he said. Fong also spends much of his time visiting credit unions and making presentations to their boards, explaining how critical it is to support “credit union friendly” legislators. He urges board members to view donating to the PAC as simply a business expense. “Giving to the PAC is just a byproduct of doing business these days,” he explained. “It’s just how it is. Boards sit down and do their annual budgets for the year; I’m trying to convince them to put a little bit aside for PAC as part of the cost of doing business.” With lawmakers in the California Legislature under term limits, turnover is a constant in the Assembly and Senate, making credit union support of candidates even more important, he said. “Before term limits, you might see the same person (in office) for 25 years,” Fong noted. “It was much easier for lobbyists to deal with because you have a history built with that person. They know the history of credit unions. Now, with term limits, you see a lot of new faces . . . so it takes a lot of effort and a lot of support to campaigns to help these legislators understand what credit unions are all about. “In order to do that, we have to support them in their campaigns, get them elected to office and educate them about credit unions,” he said. “With term limits, that becomes even more of a necessity.” An eight-member PAC committee of the California league, currently headed by Judy Happ, president and chief executive officer at Arrow Credit Union in Oakland, determines which legislators should receive funds and how PAC funds should be raised. Fong also oversees PAC fundraising for the much smaller Nevada league, although he says that state’s PAC pretty much runs itself. The federal PAC for California and Nevada were previously merged. In addition to the California league’s effort at state PAC funding, four regional PACs also operate, set up by credit unions in the regions. They serve the San Diego area, San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento area and the Vacaville region. “They were started because credit unions wanted more control of how PAC dollars were spent,” Fong explained. “They’re not influenced by the California Credit Union League; there are no decision makers that sit on both the CCUL PAC and the regional PACs.” Fong said he doesn’t view the regional PACs as competition when it comes to raising funds. “It’s all going to the same cause, to support credit union friendly legislators,” he said. Fong insisted that PAC fundraising efforts are essential for credit unions. “We just have to do it,” he said. “We have to stay active. We have to stay active in campaigns. We have to give to legislators. It’s a cost of doing business and it’s a worthwhile investment.” Fong appears well suited to the fundraising task, since he’s a confessed “big time golf addict” and his arm twisting for dollars is often done while playing golf with credit union officials and others. He admitted that his tenure with the league came about as something of a fluke. After having graduated from law school, he was planning to go to work in September 1996 as a prosecutor with the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office. During the summer, though, he learned of an opening at the league’s Sacramento office, where the recently hired Bob Arnould was looking for a temporary hire to help with some writing and research. He applied, got the temporary job, and was hired full time in December of that year. “Here I am,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve never looked back.” Fong is a lifelong Sacramento resident whose background includes work as a stock broker and as a college professor teaching business law. He lives in the city with his wife, Carol, a licensed clinical counselor, and 3 1/2-year-old son Jaden. Fong said he can empathize with credit union people he solicits for PAC money. “I know how all of our contributors feel,” he said. “When I walk into my house at night, Jaden is constantly asking me for quarters for the vending machine.” -
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